Politics in a puppet state

Actress Yafit Asulin talks to the 'Magazine' about 'The Country of Midgets,' puppets and getting Israelis to laugh.

Interview with Israeli actress Yafit Asulin
The weekly television series The Country of Midgets – which borrows the format of Newzoids, a British satire program – features puppets who take jabs at Israel’s day-to-day politics and public sphere. Produced by Israel’s public broadcasting company Kan 11, the series has the same editor, Avi Cohen, as Israel’s original satirical puppet show in the 1990s, Hartzufim.
Cohen endeavors to keep the sketches sharp and relevant to current events. The process that goes into each program is extensive and entails four steps. First, the writers create the episode’s script and give it to the voice actors to record. Once the program is recorded, the puppeteers take the stage with the prerecorded voices in the background and act out the scenes. When all the scenes are finished being filmed against various mini-backdrops, the video editor combines the footage to form the 30-minute episode. The final step before airing is the program’s animation, which ranges from making the puppets’ lips move to making their eyes blink.
One of the stars of the show is Yafit Asulin. Asulin, however, does not actually make an appearance. She just does the voice-overs for the female puppets. She recently sat down with The Jerusalem Post Magazine to discuss her role and influence on the sketches, as well as how The Country of Midgets fits into her previous acting gigs.
Yafit Asulin (Avital Peleg)Yafit Asulin (Avital Peleg)
You do all the characters in the program. Who is your favorite?
Actually, I love all my characters. I have a special feeling for all of them because when I work on a character, I connect to them. I watch them over and over again and I pay attention to their personality and all their little details.
Have your views on any of your characters changed after the extensive research you did as you prepared for the role?
I always find something I like about them. It’s complicated because I see the whole spectrum of their personalities. I see the things that I know I can laugh about. I’m saying, ‘Oh, she’s great in a way,’ and I see qualities that I don’t have, things that are not a part of my personality and they’re fun to do. It’s fun to be someone you are not. If someone is very loud – and I’m not very loud – it’s very fun for me to do that character. In my own way, I find a special connection to each of the characters.
It must be fun to laugh at the political situation in Israel. Do you bring your political opinions to the show?
I am not bringing my political thoughts to the program. I think it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for me to do so. I like to stay loyal to the characters as I see them, and to the intention of the writers and the sketch. This is what I do. As for my political views – they stay at home.
On the set of 'The Country of Midgets' (Courtesy of Kan 11)On the set of 'The Country of Midgets' (Courtesy of Kan 11)
Do you have any influence on what is written? On the sketch or the characters?
I have an influence, but I think it’s because there is a good vibe between the actors, writers and editors, so they listen. If there is something that I feel uncomfortable doing, it is usually because I feel the sketch is offensive toward the character itself – not about their actions, or about what they said or did. There were a few times when I felt the sketch was too much and I told the editor so. In one case, he felt the same and it was cut, and in the other cases they rewrote it.
Can you specify about the sketch that was cut?
Its topic was sexual harassment. And in the sketch, characters were shown suffering from breast cancer. I felt that I would be horrified and very offended if I were one of the people featured in this sketch. I said it was too much and they listened. And they don’t have to.
Also, if I want to say something or offer an idea, the editor is very open to these suggestions. I did that several times, and one time I told him an idea for another sketch about sexual harassment, and they took it and did something with it.
The idea for the sketch was about the balance between religious coercion and sexual harassment. I felt that the process in which people in Israel are becoming more religious is apparent in all kinds of ways and that religion is invading one’s personal territory, making me want to do the opposite. On the one hand, I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do and to dress religiously, and on the other hand, I don’t want to be harassed.
I told the editor about this conflict of mine and they did a sketch featuring Israeli supermodel and television host Rotem Sela, who had to decide what to wear. The model doesn’t know what to wear because she doesn’t want to be harassed. But she also doesn’t want to listen to what religious people are telling her to do. I was very proud to perform that scene because I felt like I have an influence here.
Have you ever influenced a specific puppet?
[Culture and Sports Minister] Miri Regev. At first they made her very gothic and dark, but I had another agenda with Miri Regev. I told them how I felt and they changed the puppet.
Do you think the general message of the show is neutral?
I think the show tries to hit everyone, from the Left, Right, everyone. Satire programs usually want to show the illnesses of the society and raise them up to awareness and laugh about them. That is not my main intention by doing this program, but I’m definitely glad I have the opportunity to be a part of something that criticizes society and shows another aspect. We are saying things that everyone is thinking, but no one is saying, so it’s nice to be a part of something like that.
Moving beyond puppets, in a recent role you played Yaffa, a young religious girl in the movie The Women’s Balcony, which was shown in theaters in the US and the UK. How did that feel when you found out?
It was crazy. At first it was very successful in Israel, and you know, I didn’t know what to expect when we filmed it. Everyone said that it’s a little movie and the expectations weren’t so high, but then it was very successful in Israel. And it even started to be shown in Europe and the United States and received a lot of good reviews. I’m grateful, but I don’t know how to realize the success because I’m here. It certainly gave me an appetite to try acting in the international industry. Maybe it’s time to go to the United States and see what it’s all about.
Yafit Asulin (left) played 'Yaffa' in the 2016 Israeli comedy, 'The Women's Balcony' (Etiel Tziyon)Yafit Asulin (left) played 'Yaffa' in the 2016 Israeli comedy, 'The Women's Balcony' (Etiel Tziyon)
Your character Miriam Zaguri in the television series Zaguri Empire caused some controversy when she was desperately looking for love and a Muslim Beduin man stole her heart.
First of all, she is my favorite character, and when you do these types of series with so many episodes, your character starts at one place and ends entirely in another. I was very glad to show her conflict and to make people think. It was very interesting because in the beginning I was terrified, because I thought people would harm me. When it was broadcasted on Facebook, people started to write things about me, and at first I was terrified because people sometimes think the actor is the person in the series. They don’t differentiate between the actor and the role. But I think that in the case of Miri Zaguri, she was so lovable that the negativity toward the character went away. Everyone just loved her and identified with her pain. It’s conflicting when you love somebody whom no one will accept in your culture. I think that it’s part of my job as an actress to show the conflict and make people think and ask important questions: ‘What’s best for them? What does the conflict say about the place we are living in?’
What is your next move? Is there anything you are working on right now?
I’m working on another television series right now, The Government of Shadows, a political drama surrounding the Knesset. I play an MK similar to Miri Regev. My character is very loud, vulgar and driven. I really enjoyed the role because that character is very different from me.